We just got back from a three day trip to Osaka and if you’re a fish lover, you’re going to want to keep your eyes peeled and attention focused on this page for the next week at least. Japan as you all already know is a mecca for rare fish, and as a self-proclaimed (and proud) fish geek, I can assure you that no place in the world comes anywhere close. For the record when we say mecca, we actually mean the pulsating life force of the fish world. Think of Japan as the brain, and every other country being peripheral nerves that live in the shadow being pressed as hell, wishing they were just a fraction of that grey matter.
Because we visited a few places and took way too many photos, we’re splitting up this series into four parts. Although we’ve been to Japan before, and had correspondents update us on our behalf, this is the first time we’ve gone and returned with such a collection of photos and stories. The following series of posts for the next couple of days from me will heavily feature fish, and almost nothing else. If you’re not so much into that, I apologise, but if you’re the kind who digs stuff like this, I promise you you won’t be disappointed.
In this first part of our Osaka trip recount, we paid a visit to Mr. Makoto Matsuoka. This name will sound unfamiliar to all but the most hardcore fish geeks out there that trawl the internet and Japanese catalogues in search for the elixir of all things pisces. Mr. Matsuoka is famed for his fish only tank, which by the way, is in the strictest sense the exact definition of the term. There are innumerable magazine features of his glass cube, which is filled only with water and fish. There is not a single live rock, not a single aquarium decor in this tank.
Before you start judging and throwing comments regarding this unorthodox method of keeping fish, you should know that Mr. Matsuoka is owner to some of the longest living butterflyfish I have ever seen personally. Many of them over a decade in age. It also comes as no surprise that his claim to fame lies in his collection, which boasts some of the rarest species available anywhere in the world.
Mr. Matsuoka has a soft spot for butterflyfish, especially those in the genus Prognathodes. The genus is heavily featured and represented in his aquarium, and he is dubbed all across Japan as “Mr. Prognathodes mania”. In fact just before my trip I was discussing the itinerary with Koji Wada of BlueHarbor, and he asked if I would like to see “Mr. Prognathodes mania”. It didn’t take long for that to sink in, and my resounding spam of emojis probably registered as a “yes” in Koji’s inbox.
Mr. Matsuoka currently has four species of Prognathodes in his collection (although he has had more in the past), which may seem laughable for someone who is dubbed “Mr. Prognathodes mania”. It’s not so much the number that matters, but what constitutes it. Apart from P. marcellae and P. aya, the remaining two species in his collection are by far, some of the rarest obtainable fishes on this planet. Taking into consideration the species that have entered the trade before, then Prognathodes dichrous and P. falcifer are two of the rarest members in this genus, apart from P. obliquus.
Prognathodes dichrous is endemic to a sliver of the Atlantic Ocean, being found in the Ascension islands and St. Helena. In the last decade, an expedition to the Grattan Seamount has revealed the presence of this species in the area. Seeing as Grattan sits in-between St. Helena and Ascension, this previously unrecorded range has bridged the gap between the two islands, therefore eliminating the previously disjunct range coordinates of the species.
While the fish is not rare in the wild, it is exactly the opposite in the aquarium trade. Back in the heydays of the early 2000s, export of fish from the Ascension islands was still a rather regular occurrence. Centropyge resplendens, Chaetodon sanctaehelenae and the very odd Prognathodes dichrous were some of the offerings. Even then, P. dichrous was rare and nowhere near as opulent as C. resplendens.
It wasn’t long before collection terminated from the Ascension islands, and the local fare became unobtainable. Centropyge resplendens was fortunate enough to have been successfully captive bred, and that for a little while was able to supply the world with a handful of specimens. Chaetodon sanctaehelenae and Prognathodes dichrous saw a fate most perverse, and with the stoppage of Ascension exports, these fishes became explicitly unobtainable.
The heydays of the Ascension era were therefore succeeded by the few living specimens that were collected before the hiatus. Of course, over the years many of them passed on as fishes do, but the one true survivor to this day belongs to Mr. Matsuoka and his thirteen year old P. dichrous. That’s right, 13. That is longer than half the amount of years I have been alive.
I do not know exactly how many P. dichrous were collected in the past, or how many are currently alive right now. I do know that Mr. Matsuoka wasn’t the only one with this species in hand. However to my knowledge, this may quite possibly be the only specimen alive to this date. If there are other low profile fish keepers out there with a pioneering specimen that’s still alive to this day, I would really like to hear about it.
It’s very obvious that the thirteen years in captivity has taken a toll on this incredible species. Don’t forget, this species is only available so far as adults, and no photos of a juvenile P. dichrous has ever been see. They probably live much deeper in the wild. The fish may cumulatively be very close to fifteen years or older. In two photos above, you can see Mr. Matsuoka’s original pair (yes he had a pair) back in the early 2000s. The pair is down to one at this current time, but clearly from the old photo you can see the dramatic change in coloration.
P. dichrous is an incredibly unique species that shares the same basal coloration as only one other Prognathodes member, and that is P. obliquus (For the record, Mr. Matsuoka also owned P. obliquus back in the 2000s, where exportation from the St. Paul’s archipelago in Brazil was still carried out. Same story as P. dichrous, just a different locale). The fish is gunmetal black with a lustrous silver back that has coined the common name “hedgehog butterflyfish” for this species. What is perhaps the most bizarre feature of this species is the eye as well as the lateral line. The iris is a well of liquid mercury, that bleeds along the lateral line in a highly reflective almost martian like manner.
This shimmery lateral line and eye gives the fish a very space-age, alien like appearance and it’s not seen in any other species. I can’t even begin to describe that sheen. It’s so unique it’s almost incomprehensible. Thirteen years later, the fish is now coffee brown and the silver back tarnished with cream. The mercury accents still remain, but overall it’s the story and history of this fish that really clinched the deal for me.
While some of you may be gagging at P. dichrous (don’t pretend, I know that fish isn’t for everyone), it’s futile to resist the undeniable beauty of the next Prognathodes. If sexy could be condensed into a tangible living breathing fish, it would probably come close to looking like P. falcifer. Dubbed with an equally cool and hair-raising common name of the Scythe butterflyfish, P. falcifer is really well and truly a menacing and knee-weakening species.
Like P. dichrous vs P. obliquus, P. falcifer is also very unique in its patterning. It shares the same design with one other sister species, and that is P. carlhubbsi. Apart from distribution, the main difference lies in the scythe mark and the ocular stripe. In P. falcifer, the inverted scythe pattern doesn’t reach as far up to the second and third dorsal spines, while in the latter the stripe often reaches or sometimes even touches the spines. The black ocular stripe in P. falcifer ends just behind the eye, and after it it fades into a slight yellow wash. Whereas in P. carlhubbsi, this stripe is black and continuous all the way past the eye.
Although Prognathodes falcifer doesn’t range in a collection deprived area like Ascension islands, it is by no means common and obtainable in the trade. P. falcifer swims in the deep cold waters of the Eastern Pacific, from Southern California USA, to Baja Mexico. It can occasionally be found in cooler but shallower waters such as Catalina islands where this juvenile was photographed back in 2013.
Its deep water preference and inconvenient range has protected it from aquarium imports and to be quite honest, apart from this particular specimen, I have no idea how many privately owned specimens there are out there. For butterflyfish aficionados who really want to catch a glimpse of this species, the Denver Downtown Aquarium houses a pair that’s still alive to this day, and that’s about the only place where you can see one in public.
Mr. Matsuoka’s Scythe butterflyfish was a privately collected specimen from Baja Mexico, and is fairly recent. Coming in at close to two years, the fish is still fresh and gorgeous looking with nary a defect or blemish. Granted there aren’t many for anyone to really see and compare, it might sound silly if I were to say that this is by far one of the nicest looking specimens around. It does sound silly, but really, I don’t care. This fish is just too pretty.
Apart from Prognathodes, a single Roa excela also calls this tank its home. R. excelsa is a Hawaiian endemic that is also rare and really expensive, and if you think that swimming alongside the two holy grail Prognathodes have cheapened and devalued this fish then you are wrong. R. excelsa is one of the most beautiful butterflies and in its genus, is the only one with really striking coloration. The other Roa members are more milk-tea coloured and brownish while R. excelsa is truly deserving of its name, the gold-barred butterflyfish.
We’ve seen a few specimens in the past, and they’re usually gold singed with a burnt-caramel suffusion. This particular example is really bright for some reason with nary a hint of that brown dusting. Perhaps its the lighting or just down to this individual, but it really took our breath away.
Here’s another photo of this particularly yellow off-coloured R. excelsa. This fish used to be unheard of but in last few years, more of these have become available out of Hawaii via Rufus Kimura. This species along with Prognathodes “basabei” are some of the more iconic deepwater Hawaiian butterflyfish that are available to reefers with deeper pockets and a knack for challenging fish.
Roa is not an easy genus, but barring any collection complications they are moderately okay when it comes to feeding and general acclimation. The biggest hurdle would be obtaining one without any ill-effects from decompression and surfacing. This species has been blogged numerously over the years, so information is pretty widely available.
For a butterflyfish lover, the genus Chaetodon is strangely poorly represented here and only one member makes its presence. The very unorthodox and seldom heard or seen Chaetodon hoefleri from Africa. C. hoefleri is a member of the robustus complex which includes C. robustus and C. marleyi.
Of the three, Chaetodon robustus is the commonest and easiest to differentiate of the three. It should be aptly named the “copperband butterflyfish”, but that title has been taken by the rather unconvincing Chelmon rostratus. C. marleyi and C. hoefleri are similar, but C. marleyi has thicker more distinct banding, and the back portion of the fish isn’t as orange. Chaetodon hoefleri is seldom seen in the trade and there’s nothing really much to say expect that it’s a really lesser seen member of the genus.
Other non butterflyfish species are represented by a few odd species. Pseudanthias connelli from South Africa makes an appearance in this collection. A large Gem Tang, and perhaps the one other incredibly rare fish in this collection that I did not photograph was a single specimen of Chromis okamurai.
Apart from the Prognathodes, the fish I really wanted to see the most was Chromis okamurai. Mr. Matsuoka is one of the few people even in Japan who owns this fish. C. okamurai is a deepwater Chromis from Japan, and is closely related to another deepwater species, Chromis mirationis.
Both species are mainly white with a central stripe, but C. okamurai is more vividly coloured in black and yellow and blue, while C. mirationis is mainly white with a central chestnut stripe. Together, these two represent some of the deeper water damsels in Japan, where they are normally found at depths up to 200ft or deeper. Regrettably, Mr. Matsuoka’s C. okamurai was in subpar condition and had pop-eyes, which really didn’t make for any good pictures. It’s being treated in a separate tank where it will hopefully return to its former glory.
I would like to sincerely extend a huge thank you to Mr. Matsuoka, and Koji Wada for the liaising and company. It has been a great honour and privilege to meet him in person, to talk about his fish, and to see his collection. Apart from his living and existing collection of fish, Mr. Matsuoka was kind enough to indulge me with photos of his fishes of the past.
He has an incredible history, and like Mr. Wong of Hong Kong, he has a huge repertoire of stories and nostalgic film photos. One of the most exciting was when he whipped out the original photos of Liopropoma flavidum and Genicanthus spinus, and then handed me the photos asking me if I knew what they were. I couldn’t believe it! Every photo of L. flavidum and G. spinus online, in books and in magazines have originated from scans of these exact same originals. There’s an unearthly aura when you touch these iconic prints, and truly understand the significance of it.
There is only so much I can put into words and photos, but I hope with the profoundest sincerity that I am able to share with everyone here as much as I can, everything through my eyes. If this post and the butterflyfish are not your cup of tea, fear not! We’ve only just begun, and we have three more parts to talk about. There is something for everyone, and it keeps getting better.